Typography: Going back to the future
Dick Cavett on improving your speeches

The art of the teleprompter

Clinton I don't give many formal speeches, but when I do, I don't prepare a script to be read word for word. Instead, I think clearly beforehand about what I want to say and write down a few ideas with key words or an illustration that reminds me of my points as the short talk unfolds (and this card is not seen by the audience). It's possible to memorize a speech, but memorized speeches almost always sound artificial and somehow disconnected unless you are an extremely skilled speaker (and have loads of time for memorizing pages of text). Since memorization is so arduous and risky, many executives and politicians elect to read their speech in some fashion. Who can blame them?

It's not impossible to read a speech and make a powerful connection with an audience, but it's extremely difficult to do so (which is why groups like Toastmasters are so valuable). It takes a lot of work and coaching and experience, but it is possible to read a prepared speech that is remarkable. Unfortunately, such speeches are rare. Remember, it's not just the words of the speech — whether read or memorized — it is the meaning of the words. To convey meaning (the "so what?" not just the "what"), you're going to have to deliver the message as naturally as possible. I don't think you have to be super polished — and certainly you don't have to be perfect — but you do have to capture the audience's attention and take them someplace. You do have to speak in a human voice.


Senator John McCain with two teleprompters. The words are visible only to him.

And one more teleprompter in the middle.

The trick? Don't make it seem so obvious
The problem with reading from paper is that eye contact can suffer. To get around this many executives and politicians use teleprompters. While the teleprompter gets the head up, its use is no guarantee that the delivery will be any better. Sometimes, for example, it's very obvious that the speaker is reading and there is no real eye contact with the audience — there is just a gaze in the general direction of the audience as the speaker is clearly focused on the teleprompter in front (or to the left or the right). Reading a speech from a teleprompter that engages an audience is not easy. It's hard. But some political figures are batter at it than others. CNN last week did a short segment on some of the pitfalls of using a teleprompter, highlighting Senator John McCain's adventures with reading at the lectern as an example. Watch it below.

The right way
President Reagan was very effective at reading speeches. President Clinton was as well. Today, Senator Barack Obama clearly stands above the rest. The "Yes We Can" speech was read from a teleprompter and was powerful and memorable. While in Silicon Valley two weeks ago I saw Senator Obama give his "A More Perfect Union" speech on television. Though I knew he was using a teleprompter, his delivery made me soon forget he was reading a prepared speech. Though formal and serious, his words seemed more natural and flowed more smoothly. If you have the time, watch this speech in its entirety below.

In many ways, reading a speech is far more difficult than giving a presentation with the aid of multimedia. Reading may seem safe and easy compared to going without a net, but standing in front of an audience and bringing words off a screen and giving them life and energy in a way that connects with the audience and moves them and persuades them is truly an art. It's hard, but it's a skill that great leaders must master. (If you're in the States, experts like Bert Decker, Jerry Weissman, and Carmine Gallo can help take you and your company to another level).

Free online teleprompter (of sorts)



Is it the lack of control or the obscurity of having to read in a different position (rather than typically looking down) that causes people to have the most trouble?

I would think the lack of control/power, as CNN suggests, is the most difficult to deal with. If this is the case, is a wireless control a good solution? Politicians are typically behind a podium, which has room to hide the control.

If it's the position, I fear that it's just a matter of practice and experience that one must gain.


I think what Olmo is suggesting is that the speaker control the scrolling while behind the podium? That's way too difficult. The speaker is trying to read, look natural, look at different audience members, use gestures, and be animated. No way can he/she also control the scrolling. One has to take the time to practice with the person controlling the scroll. Politicians rarely have the time.

Dick Cavett, in his New York Times blog, had this tip for using teleprompters:
Tip #3. I feel almost silly when I do this one, but it works. Grab a bunch of words off the prompter and, instead of staring straight ahead, glance down and to one side as you do — in real life — when thinking just what to say next. Then look back and deliver those snatched-up words to the camera. It works like a charm. (As a beloved childhood magic catalogue of mine used to say — with unintended ambiguity — “We cannot recommend this trick too highly.”)

Garr Reynolds

Yes, I agree with that. There is too much going on as it is. Putting the speaker in control of one more thing is just too much. But it is important that the person controlling the screen is paying attention (which is what the CNN piece talked about). In John McCain's case above perhaps having three screens rather than just one in the center is too distracting. I love the comment about Dick Cavett -- one of the masters to be sure.


My experience using teleprompters myself and coaching executives to use them is this - if the speaker is quite comfortable with the material and is using the prompter primarily as a reminder of key points and backup in case he forgets something crucial then it can appear quite natural. If the presenter is more or less pitching the material for the first time then the probability of natural results is near-zero.

The only exception to this rule is when the speaker is "presenting" to a television camera and the prompter is mounted right on the lens. In that instance the presenter can read the material and be looking directly into the camera - that can be beautiful.


The McCain video is no longer availible...
Does anyone know another source for this video?

Paul DiBenedetto

I came across your blog while doing some research. As a professional teleprompter operator, I would agree with a number of your points, and would like to make an additional suggestion to enhance the teleprompting experience.

First, thank you for making the distinction between reading a speech and delivering a speech, and especially the need for practice. When working with a client I always tell them to tuen off that portion of their brain that is trying to search for the words, as I am providing that to them on the prompter, and to put all their energy into DELIVERING the message, using pauses ... emphasis ... and cadence. There are some speakers that will never get it, but most often we are able to coach speakers into delivering great speeches.

And that is where my suggestion comes in. The teleprompter operator is the most critical component to consider. Often, the teleprompter operator is an available member of the crew, perhaps a grip drafted for teleprompter duty. I've spoken with many people who's first experience with teleprompting was under similar circumstances and it was usually a disaster!

In order to have the best experience, the operator should be a professional, one that has been trained in, and participated in speech preparation and delivery. They love language. They understand what the client is going through in front of the audience or camera. They can anticipate the speaker's needs, especially is the speaker goes "off prompter" for extemporaneous comments.

However, one recomendation I would make is to severely limit the use of telepromting to completely scripted speeches. While "bulleted points" can be "scrolled", the complete bullet is often not fully on the screen at one time, therefore limiting the speaker's ability to snatch the thought from the prompter. The analogy is trying to pound a nail with a screwdriver. It can be done, but it isn't the tool for the job. A prompter shines at scrolling text. The best thing is to use it that way.

The comments to this entry are closed.